The Theory of Chaos

Monday, November 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Full review behind the jump

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

: Larry Charles
: Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips, Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, based on the character “Borat” created by Sacha Baron Cohen
: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach
: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell

The trouble with Borat is that he loves America not wisely, but too well. He is a galling ignoramus, both sexist and anti-Semitic to ludicrous extremes, and yet is one heck of a genial and friendly guy. He projects to us that he is merely the helpless product of his culture, and assumes that his attitudes are based on the best science and reason, and that he is sure the wonderful people he meets in America will share his feelings. His jaw-droppingly funny “movie-film”
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is partially about the fine line he walks with these assumptions, and those cringing moments where he turns out to be right.

In what frequently amounts to an act of guerilla sociology posing as a documentary, Borat Sagdiyev, a character created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen for his TV series
Da Ali G Show, is sent by the breakaway former Soviet republic he calls his humble home to learn about American culture. He takes to the assignment with relish, and Cohen (who movie audiences met earlier this year playing villainous French racer Jean Girard in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) serves up a finely-balanced variety show within the format.

Not all of it is a trap for Americans to reveal the stupid that lurks within, although those are the scenes that have produced the most breathless analysis and commentary (and the lawsuits). It is part man-on-the-street prank, part gross-out farce, and most of all a showcase for a brilliantly conceived and performed character that exploits, with ruthless accuracy, our patronizing image of third-world-ers as backwards but optimistic naïfs enamored of the idealized America we flatter ourselves that we present. We’ve been Innocents Abroad, and
Borat is how the Abroad strikes back.

We begin in Borat’s village, where his sister is an award-winning prostitute and he’s a TV presenter covering local events like “The Running of the Jew”. With his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian, game enough to go as far as Cohen’s humor sends him) in tow, a small crew departs for the “U.S. and A.” on a vague mission to study its culture. That’s about as much storyline as the movie has to hang its progression of incidents on, although Borat does develop a keen interest in heading west so that he might “make sexy time” with Pamela Anderson. The former Baywatch beauty shows that in addition to her other famous assets, she has an impressive sense of humor about herself.

In between we have encounters that are scatological, others more old-fashioned slapstick, some that demonstrate the power of one wrong preposition to change the entire philosophical conceit of a phrase. Cohen, who is Cambridge-educated and, for the record, Jewish, demonstrates a Swiss Army Knife mastery of all the uses of humor – among them to disarm, to illuminate, to provoke, to expose, to ridicule, and, often gloriously, to offend.

What makes the film so compelling, beyond its ability to inspire either a cringe or a belly laugh every other minute, is the way it wraps us up in the almost unbearable tension inherent in politeness. In Borat, Cohen has an ideal tool to study just how much an average person will accept with a smile. The film is not nearly so universally mocking as you might expect, and many of the Americans Borat encounters prove to be patient, helpful and encouraging nearly to a fault. It’s often about deeply-held biases – the ones we in the audience hold that color where we expect a scene to go and the ones people on screen feel safe to reveal around Borat.

And then there are his own biases, and the way others are too terrified of confrontation to tell even him, the most gregarious bigot they’re ever likely to meet, that they are offensive. The rare exceptions seem downright heroic, like the driving instructor who not only shows a firm hand in keeping his student safe on the road, but also has the headspace available to enlighten him about how women have the right to not only drive, but choose whom they have sex with, and how that’s good for society.

It’s those fine distinctions that fascinate – how is it possible to look past a guest at a Southern dinner party bringing a bag of his own feces to the table, and even explain to him in painstaking detail the operations of a toilet and toiler paper, but it’s too much when he invites a black prostitute (Luenell) to join them? In fairness, Luenell is not actually a prostitute – like many encounters in the film it is not quite as accidental as presented, and this article offers a fairly comprehensive rundown about how most of the highlights of the film were set up.

Cohen is modern in that he knows where the envelope is and how to push it, but you can tell he’s also a classicist when it comes to humor – one with a rich respect for his forbearers. Fans of comedy team Laurel & Hardy will notice Azamat actually quoting an oft-repeated line of Hardy’s at a perfectly appropriate moment, and Cohen clearly knows that it in comedy it almost never fails to show a tall skinny guy and a short fat guy fighting. In spite of that, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never seen a fight like this.

As with any such scattershot comedy you’re not looking for cleanliness of structure but a unity of ideas and a high hit-to-miss ratio. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has both of those in spades – it’s almost appallingly clever, and I say that because its hot-button marksmanship inspires such high-minded examination, or huffing indignation, by people who end up not seeing at all just how damned funny it is. And before they realize it they have become part of the joke.


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